Oct 21, 2020 to Oct 20, 2021 is the Jubilee year of the 4th centenary of the birth of Blessed Nicolas Barré. Join the Infant Jesus (IJ) Sisters as they tell us his story, and theirs.
“Human beings are storytellers because we are engaged in a process of constant growth, discovering ourselves and becoming enriched in the tapestry of the days of our life.” (Pope Francis, Message for World Communications Day 2020). Having opened the Jubilee year of the 4th centenary of our founder Blessed Nicolas Barré’s birth on Oct 21, 2020, we feel that this is a unique and opportune time to tell his story and to draw inspiration from his response to God’s call, his missionary zeal and his vision of God’s Kingdom.
The story of Blessed Nicolas Barré
He was born in Amiens, France, on Oct 21, 1621, the eldest of five children and the only son. He grew up in the shadow of Amiens Cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic art, depicting the Bible in stone, wood and glass. He was a loving son and brother; when his 10-year-old sister was seriously ill, he interceded successfully and with great trust in God for her cure.
Nicolas was educated by the Jesuits where he was formed not only intellectually, but also in a solid Christian way of life. He was gifted in the humanities but also showed a lively interest in science and the technology of his time.
It is God who always takes the initiative. “You did not choose me but I chose you.” (John 15:16) As a brilliant student, Nicolas felt drawn neither to his family business nor to any career in law or science. Instead he felt called by God to be a priest.
Drawn to the monastic life. Nicolas chose to join the Minims of St Francis of Paola; this already indicated his concern for the plight of those who suffered from extreme poverty and its consequences. Most Minim houses were built on the outskirts of towns with a view not only to silence and seclusion but also to being with people who lived on the edge, the unemployed, the factory workers and the peasants. In this way, the Minims came to experience first-hand the epidemics, fires and wars of mid-17th century France and came to personally know the victims of poverty.
Response to God’s call
Nicolas was sent to Paris in 1643. While still a deacon, he was asked to teach philosophy, and after his ordination to the priesthood in 1645, he was asked to teach theology. Within a few years, he was made professor of both philosophy and theology while continuing his work as a preacher, spiritual director and confessor, recognised as having the gift of discernment. He was also appointed director of a library at the Minim house in Palais Royale, Paris, famed for being a meeting place for many learned and famous people of his time. After some years living this demanding religious and pastoral life, during which Nicolas witnessed the appalling misery of the people of Paris, he himself fell ill and was sent by the friars to Rouen where he became a sacristan and continued with his pastoral mission.
He was a man of faith whose life was greatly influenced by his contemplation of the mystery of the Incarnation, of God made man so that in Him humanity might be transformed. “For God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) This contemplative vision made him sensitive to the anguish of the ordinary people he met in Rouen, especially that of the children and younger people. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Nicolas perceived a call from Christ Himself coming through the misery of these little ones.
Forming apostolic communities
Nicolas was convinced God alone could satisfy; all else was but a means, a direction or a path. God is our only goal, the centre and object of all our motivations. Filled with deep faith and trust in God’s providence, Nicolas ventured forth to create something out of nothing. Combining his sensitivity to the poor and the value of education, he inspired other like-minded people to come forward to work with him in helping the poor live their lives with dignity. He also influenced St John Baptist de La Salle to help the poor boys.
The IJ story started in 1662 when he gathered a group of young laywomen who shared the same vision and committed themselves totally to the same mission “to abandon ourselves to Divine Providence with complete disinterestedness”. In 1666, prompted by “a strong inspiration”, he proposed to these women to live in community “without making vows or being cloistered” so as to be accessible to the ordinary people and be free to go to them in their surroundings.
It is important to note that the IJ Sisters only became a religious congregation in 1866, 200 years after they were founded. Circumstances led it to seek official approval from Rome, resulting in a modification of the constitutions to include vows. In 1887 it became a religious Institute of Pontifical Right, dedicated to the apostolate.
One man’s legacy
In his own reflection, Nicolas wrote: “Jesus Christ said that whoever received a little child in His name, would receive Him; and as He said in another place, whatever is done to one of the least, the poorest, the most despised is done to Himself; it follows that whoever receives a poor abandoned child doubly welcomes Jesus Christ. And this is the first and most important aim of the Institute.” (S.R. 1:2)
Nicolas died in Paris on May 31, 1686 at the age of 64. From one city to several countries, from five women to thousands of teachers, from a handful of street children to millions of beneficiaries around the world over a period of more than 350 years – all this was made possible only by one ordinary man’s response to God’s call. He was proclaimed Blessed in Rome on March 7, 1999 by Pope John Paul II, and his feast is celebrated on Oct 21.
Pope Francis in his Message for the 2020 World Day of the Poor has invited us to “Stretch forth your hand to the poor.” (Sirach 7:32) At every period of history, God hears the cries of the poor. We cannot escape the Lord asking us if we have fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, or spent time with the sick and those in prison. (cf Matthew 25:31-45)
May the story of Blessed Nicolas Barré enrich us and inspire us to grow and discover how we too, can respond to God’s call and the call of the poor.
Contributed by the Infant Jesus Sisters. Watch out for the second instalment of their story in our Dec 6 issue of The Catholic News.